The Central Park Five, the newly released Ken Burns documentary about five black and Hispanic teenagers railroaded through the New York City criminal justice system for a rape they did not commit, does not at first glance seem to have much in common with the unsolved homicide of Ukiah resident Susan Keegan.
The two incidents occurred two decades and a continent apart, and the color, class and life experiences of those involved could not be more different. One became a national icon of urban decay and the failure of public safety. The other has drawn little attention beyond Mendocino County, except perhaps in the homes of a few scattered friends and family members who still clamor for justice. One is about a rush to judgment, the other about justice delayed.
And yet there are parallels, beyond the fact that some of Susan Keegan’s ashes have been scattered just a few minutes’ walk from the notorious 102nd St. pathway in the northern end of Manhattan’s Central Park, where a jogger once hovered at the edge of death.
In April 1989, a 28-year-old investment banker was dragged into the bushes, beaten and raped with horrifying savagery, and left in a coma from which she was not expected to emerge. That same night, dozens of teenagers entered the park together and engaged in a string of assaults, including trying to steal a bike and throwing stones at another runner.
Five boys, ages 14 to 16, were arrested for the lesser assaults. Then, the young woman’s fractured body was discovered and the rape charge was added on. The Central Park Jogger case, as it quickly came to be known, generated an outcry, with the newspapers, the city government and the public demanding punishment in fierce, shrill language.
After two trials that made tabloid headlines for weeks, all five teens were convicted of gang rape and multiple counts of assault and ultimately served between seven and 13 years in prison. In 2002, long after most of them had been released, another man confessed to being the sole assailant, and DNA evidence backed his claim. Ken Burns argues convincingly in his documentary that the boys were scapegoats, symbols of all that had gone haywire in a seemingly lawless city. Every one of their convictions was vacated.
It was a shocking miscarriage of justice, to be sure, but what does any of it have to do with Susan Keegan?
Susan Keegan was found dead in her home in November 2010, and 21 months later, a death certificate was issued reporting the cause as homicide. Authorities report there is a “person of interest,” widely believed to be the physician to whom Susan was married for 32 years. The couple was in the midst of bitter divorce negotiations. Medocino law enforcement has not explained why no one has been charged in the case.
Here are the common threads. First, faulty assumptions were made immediately in both cases – the troublemaking black and Hispanic kids must have committed a crime, the white, Harvard-educated physician could not have done so.
The cops in New York did not wait for evidence before concluding that the boys who threw rocks at one runner must be the same boys who raped another. Because they were “certain,” they ignored the timeline that would have shown their reconstruction of events to be impossible.
The cops arriving at the Keegan residence the morning after Susan’s death likewise jumped to conclusions. Their failure to identify the home as a crime scene, and ask hard questions about the husband’s version of events, injured an investigation that might have cast doubt on his story of Susan’s hidden drug abuse. Seven months would pass before law enforcement returned to the house, armed with a search warrant, to take a closer look.
Second, the nature of authority comes into play – the powerless yield to the powerful. In a setting that involves both New York City cops and teenage boys from a public housing project, it is obvious who gets to call the shots and who is vulnerable. That’s a lot less clear when Mendocino County cops knock on a physician’s door and greet a take-charge man who at another place and time might have offered them life-saving treatment. Who’s really in charge then?
Third, friends and family struggle to do more than howl into the wind. The families of the falsely charged boys faced a criminal justice system and a public that had instantly made up its mind. No one was listening when they insisted the cops had gotten it wrong.
Likewise, within hours of her death, Susan Keegan’s closest connections bombarded the Mendocino Sheriff’s Office with requests to pay attention – to conduct a careful autopsy, to safeguard evidence before it could be destroyed, to probe deeply into the highly suspicious circumstances of her death.
It is not clear that anyone listened there, either.
Whatever their similarities and differences, the two cases stand as powerful reminders of the imperative of justice – justice for suspects, justice for victims, and justice for those left behind to give voice to them both. It’s not easy to right a wrong, once an error has been made. A civilized society needs to trust that its criminal justice professionals will work swiftly, vigorously and without prejudice on behalf of all its members.
It is too late to make up for the injustice that those hapless teenage boys, most of them now struggling men, have suffered. The years they lost behind bars can never be redeemed.
But it is not too late to make up for the delays in prosecuting the Susan Keegan case. Whatever the early errors in evidence-gathering, the challenge of trying a defendant who can afford prominent legal counsel, and the other pressures on a resource-strapped law-enforcement community, a two-year wait is long enough. A homicide has occurred, and the suspect should be charged. It is time for the District Attorney of Mendocino County to act on the evidence. ¥¥